"People believe there’s nothing more harmful to a person’s reputation than a conservator predicting their death. They’re wrong. The most harmful thing to a person’s reputation is being a conservator."
Excerpt from ‘Confessions of a Former Conservator.’
Esther followed Vera into the nave, a windowless, rectangular tunnel of stone with a few threadbare carpets thrown on the floor. A cracked chalkboard sat on one wall with creaky wooden chairs facing it instead of pews. Stale air and dried tears had since replaced the joy and profundity often found in a place of worship.
The hymnody, the collective term for conservators, waited impatiently on the uncomfortable chairs. Even though Esther was the cause of their delay, no one dared to show their disapproval or annoyance. In fact, they avoided looking at her altogether.
Vera reached out and squeezed Esther’s lower arm when they realised the only free seat was between the new girl and another conservator whose name Esther hadn’t bothered to learn. Summoning her courage, Esther strode over and perched on the side of the wobbly chair, as far away from the new girl as possible.
The other girl shifted away in disgust at the scent of protective herbs and the ever-present stench of death that clung to Esther like an unwanted romantic suitor. Feigning confidence, Esther smiled and spread her legs wide in front of her, settling deep into her seat.
“Nice day, isn't it?” she asked the girl innocently, baring her teeth. The conservator blanched and turned away. Ironically, the hymnody were the only people who distrusted Esther for being a huntsman. They knew the dangers of blood magery more than most and weren’t blinded to the possibility she could bring the blood-curse into the city.
Vera took up her place by the chalkboard. If Esther had no choice but to attend the meeting, she was glad Vera was there.
Before she began the introductions, there was a heavy banging against the front door. Vessany walked into the vestibule to answer it. After a brief exchange, Vessany bit back a growl and called: “Syr rey-Taleen, it’s a messenger for you. He insists that it’s urgent.”
It was Vera turn to storm into the vestibule. Esther and the other girls strained their ears and heard a short snippet: “... invited to the Overmaster’s Council ... Lord Nazari…”
Vera hissed at the messenger, who said nothing in return. Powerless in the face of his silence and authority, she returned to the nave with slumped shoulders.
“Sisters, I am needed elsewhere. Sister Vessany, you shall lead today’s meeting.” She raised her chin and nodded at Esther, who sunk further into her seat while cursing the messenger.
With Vera and her abrasive warmth gone from the guildhall, the mood shifted. Vessany trudged up to the blackboard, muttering to herself. She came to an abrupt halt and summoned a soft smile everyone knew was loaded with hidden spite. “Good afternoon, my sisters.”
“Good afternoon, Sister Vessany,” the hymnody chanted in unison, their glum voices echoing on the stone walls and lingering around the wooden rafters. Esther remained silent, and in the silence, she and Vessany shared a knowing look with a clear meaning: Let us get this over with as quickly as possible.
Vessany cleared her throat and slipped into the flat tone of one delivering an over-rehearsed speech. “Today I'd like you all to welcome a new face in our hymnody.” Vessany beckoned for the new girl. She limped to the front of the room and stopped three feet away from Vessany, awkwardly fidgeting with the layers of her habit that were at least two sizes too large for her skinny frame. Esther looked to the ceiling so she didn’t need to look at the girl’s hazel eyes, which were so alike Guardian Kessila’s. “Everybody, please welcome Sister Kessila.”
“Hello,” the new girl muttered, unable to meet anyone’s eye. “I’m Kessila... but you can all call me Kessi. I’m excited to learn from you all.” A few of the hymnody’s cliques bowed their heads together and whispered furiously, their words ripe with suspicion.
“Admirable… enthusiasm,” Vessany said with a saccharine smile so false it left a sour taste in Esther’s mouth. “Quickly now, take your seat.”
She’d skipped a handful of the required platitudes and questions Vera used to introduce a new member, for which Esther was grateful. Again, a few of the other girls whispered at Vessany’s deviated introduction.
She clapped her hands together to regain their attention. “Sister Kessi, since it’s your first meeting with us, tradition dictates you tell us about your first hymn.” The new girl winced and hesitated. “Go on,” Vessany urged. “It helps to share. And remember; everyone here has heard a blood hymn before. We’re here to help.”
She gathered her breath while trying to wipe her hands on her robes, which Esther knew from experience wasn’t very absorbent. She soon gave up. “Okay, I-I,” she stammered. “I had my first one last week-”
“Heard,” Vessany corrected, quickly and forcefully. The new girl swallowed.
Vessany pressed her lips together and tried to avoid looking at Esther. After five years of meetings, they could both count the times someone asked ‘why’ on two hands. No one wanted to learn more than was necessary, lest their sisters became uneasy and suspected they were blood mage sympathisers.
But as Vessany gathered herself to scold the girl for her dangerous curiosity, Esther stirred into action. “Not all of them come with a visual or audible component,” she said without thinking. “Sometimes the visual hymns aren’t even literal, they can be symbolic. It gets confusing when people use different verbs to describe the different strengths of their hymns, so we use ‘heard’ since traditional hymns are sung.” Esther pressed her lips together, angry at herself. She should have let Vessany explain it, even if that meant the explanation would be delivered in an overly harsh way.
“Thank you, Esther,” Vessany said tightly. “Now please answer my question, sister,” she said.
The new girl shrunk inwards under the weight of their attention. “It all happened so fast. I was playing with my younger brother in the field. I felt a pop in my head and heard someone shouting — screaming, really — about a falling beam. There was no one around us, but they were building a barn on the farm next door. Then I heard-” She choked but forced herself to carry on. “I heard the victim die-”
“Cynosure,” Vessany said. “Never say ‘victim’ or ‘person.’ We call them cynosure.”
The new girl paused with her mouth opened. Esther squeezed her hands together. She was going to ask ‘why’ again, Esther knew it, so she cut in before she could get in more damn trouble. Vessany had less patience and tolerance for questions than Esther did.
“Hearing a hymn can traumatise the listener. We call the focus of the hymn our cynosure to distance ourselves. It helps, especially if we can’t stop the death from occurring.” She said it with all the conviction her conservator training had conditioned into her, but it was a lie. Switching up the semantics might have helped other people, but it had never helped her.
The new girl looked thankful for Esther’s assistance, so Esther looked away before she could get the wrong idea. “Then it’s a good thing I was able to stop it,” she said. “I ran into the barn and told them to get away from the beams. Seconds after I gave the warning, one fell. It was big enough to crush a man to death, but because I’d warned them, the victims- the cynosures,” she corrected clumsily, “were able to jump out the way.” She shuddered, and Esther knew she was reliving the memory of the hymn. That was the curse of a conservator; even when she saved a life, she still saw them die.
Being stuck in the past wouldn’t help her, so before she could stop herself, Esther said: “You saved their lives, new girl. Focus on that.” The girl smiled slightly, which only made Esther wince. Why did I say that? she thought. Why can’t I stop myself?
“I did, didn’t I?” the new girl said with a distinct lightness.
Vessany rushed through the meeting. They never revealed new hymns at the meetings, because they were reported directly to Vera as soon as they occurred, as per the Six Senseless Steps. Since there wasn't much else to do in a session centred around passive foresight, Vessany made them all take it in turns to discuss their latest trials and tribulations. It transformed the meetings into an unbearably dull group therapy session Esther hadn’t taken part in for the last four years.
At last, the final sister finished speaking. Esther prepared to leap out of her seat after Vessany began to close off the session in the traditional way. “Remember, we need to care for each other,” she rushed out. “Keep an eye out for symptoms of death shock amongst your sisters and report anything unusual to me or Syr rey-Taleen.”
Just as Esther activated her leg muscles to stand, the new girl’s hand hesitantly ventured up into the heavens. “What’s death shock?”
Esther collapsed back into her seat, and for the first time during that session, Vessany’s demeanour softened. It was the first safe question the new girl had asked.
“It’s a terrible disease of the mind some conservators suffer,” Vessany said softly. “It causes intrusive thoughts, flashbacks, nightmares, avoidance, terrible changes in mood, anger, aggression, guilt, shame… the list goes on.”
The new girl widened her eyes and sunk back in her chair. Initially, Esther hoped the answer would scare her off so she could leave. But after accidentally catching sight of her down-turned hazel eyes and girlish button nose, which was scrunched up in fear, pangs of sympathy pulled at her heart.
“Then how do I identify and find my cynosure?” she asked. “I want to save people, but I don’t want to experience something like that!”
Vessany looked at Esther, who dipped her chin in a subtle nod. As much as she wanted to leave, it was an important conversation to have.
“We normally track them by using a dowsing compass, and that’s something you’ll learn on your first sacanda. However, the compass can be fallible if your hymn was weak.”
“And what then?” the new girl said, shrinking down in her seat. A few of the others muttered. “I don’t know why you all keep whispering because I cannot see what’s wrong with wanting to save people! What do I do if the compass fails?”
“There’s nothing you can do,” Vessany muttered. The spiteful atmosphere was sucked from the room in an instant. Almost everyone in the room had lost a cynosure because they couldn’t make their compass work. “You just have to try to do better on your next sacanda.”
“But what about…” the new girl bit her lip, looking sideways at her new sisters. “What about the conservator's sight?”
The hymnody fell silent and a monstrous chill crept up Esther’s back. Almost no one knew about the sight’s existence, and if they did, they remained quiet about it least they become branded as a sympathiser. Vera, Yarvier, and Esvian were the only people Esther had met who knew about it before knowing her. Their foreknowledge made sense. Vera was a conservator guildmaster and had encountered it twice. Yarvier and Esvian were wildings, who weren’t as averse to blood magery since the Blood Queen had never conquered their people. The rest of the hymnody, Vessany included, had learned about it during their time as conservators.
“How do you know about that?” Vessany snapped.
That time, the new girl paused with an expression of fear. Esther hoped she’d finally realised how dangerous questions were.
“I was… I was told about it by the conservator lady who recruited me.” The girl was flustered and the lie sounded flat to Esther’s ear.
“I suppose that checks out,” Vessany said. Unconsciously, she cast a glance at Esther. “The sight is rare, and not an avenue open to all. It’s not something I’m personally familiar with, so I don’t think I can do the topic justice. You’ll have to ask… someone else. Master rey-Taleen will be happy to tell you.”
Yes. Vera. Ask Vera, Esther prayed. But the new girl noticed the strange look the two of them shared and figured it out on her own.
“Sister Esther, do you know?”
Esther grit her jaw and gathered her temper. Despite the suspicious circumstances of the new girl's knowledge, Esther believed she was asking through concern for others. But at that moment, Esther hated her for it. If Esther’s sisters distrusted her because she chose to be a huntsman, then they hated her because of her sight.
“Yes, I know,” she said, choosing to stare at the floor. She felt the other girl’s staring at her, and the added attention made her want to shrivel up and die.
“Would you like to tell me about it?” the new girl urged softly. The hymnody’s resultant muttering was full of scorn. Esther tried her best to ignore them, but it was hard.
“It starts as a pressure behind my eyes,” she murmured. “If I focus on it and use my breath to expand it, the pressure moves and leads me towards my cynosure.” The other sisters looked at her with either disgust or envy, and Esther wasn’t sure which was worse.
The new girl looked around at the others, perhaps trying to divine the reason underlying their negative reaction. It’s not worth trying to make sense of, Esther wanted to tell her. If you’re lucky, your hymns will last four months at most, and then you’ll get to leave and have the normal childhood that was denied to me.
“Well, if that’s all,” Vessany whispered, “then you may all leave.”
A heavy wave of exhaustion rocked over Esther. It drained her, but she didn’t let it chain her to her seat. Her entire body creaked as she rose out of the hardwood chair, and she groaned loudly in pleasure as she stretched her back out. The girl she’d frightened at the start of the session scurried away from the sound like a startled rabbit.
Esther kept her distance as she walked past the new girl, but paused when she noticed she was struggling to get up. Esther watched from the corner of her eye as she tried to coax her bad knee to take her weight. Esther had no idea how she'd react if she offered to help, so she remained silent. When the girl stood unaided, Esther turned on her heel and strode towards the exit.
Vessany intercepted her partway there. “I’m so sorry I couldn’t warn you sooner,” she said. “Will you ever forgive me?”
Esther smiled weakly. “Don’t worry about it, Vess.” She rubbed her eyes and massaged her forehead. “Neither you nor Vera can control the moons or planets or the name of a single girl. It’s not your fault this happened.”
Vessany placed her hand on Esther’s shoulder. “Yet if you need to talk, I’m always here.”
“As I’m always here for you.”
The new girl tried to follow Esther, so she escaped through the front door of the chapel and jogged around the side of the guildhall to retrieve her bag and change out of her habit. Esther stood a better chance of losing the new girl if she fled through the front gate and returned at a later hour, but that was out of the question. The front gate opened onto a busy road, boosting the chance of another huntsman seeing her leaving or entering. Only Yarvier and Esvian knew she was a conservator, and she needed to keep it that way or her career was all but over.
As she fished the satchel from the bush, a branch rustled by the back door. Before she knew it, Esther’s knife was in her hand and she’d shifted her entire body weight behind it.
“New girl!” she scolded. “Stop doing that! Sneaking up on me isn’t good for your health.” She sheathed the blade and retreated towards the back gate. Although her original plan was to change away from the road, she hoped that walking off would dissuade the girl from following her.
The new girl didn’t let Esther’s retreat stop her. She followed while saying: “I knew you’d want your bag, so I came out the back way to thank you for helping me.”
Esther remained silent, pretending to focus on traversing the overgrown path. But all the years of her aunt’s etiquette lessons forbade her from ignoring the girl completely. “Don't mention it,” she said, refusing to look at her.
“No, really,” Esther said more firmly. “Questions cause trouble, for the asker and answerer. It’s best you don’t ask any or thank those dumb enough to answer them. I thought you’d learned that after asking about the sight, but you clearly didn’t.”
Much to Esther’s chagrin, the new girl followed her to the edge of the guildhall by the back road. Her proximity made Esther wince in pain and regret. She needed to put a stop to the girl thinking Esther was a potential friend. “Look, new girl-”
“My name is Kessi.”
“Oh trust me, I know,” Esther growled. She unfastened her cloak with too much force and almost broke the clasps. “You’re nice and all, but don’t get used to this.”
She frowned, puzzled. “Used to what?”
“Me. Used to me.” It took every inch of will Esther possessed to remain in one place and speak with civility. “I meant what I said earlier, about not making friends. They all leave in the end, so I don’t get attached. Now scram!” She had hoped it would offend her, but the new girl looked at her with wide, critical eyes.
“That sounds like a terrible way to live,” she said. “Does it not get tiresome?”
“Yes.” The word came out in a whoosh, uncontainable and unstoppable. Esther had no idea where it had come from. When she heard it, her body crunched up. “No! It doesn’t. In fact, it saves me from the pain that comes from irritating conservators.”
The new girl didn’t look convinced, but before Esther could defend her slip further, a woman appeared on the road behind the guildhall. The area wasn’t a very savoury part of town, so Esther removed her head dressings in case conflict was inevitable. Usually, conservators were safe on the guildhall’s grounds, but not every drunk and hoodlum in the city got the memo.
Esther kept her eyes averted from the newcomer to show she meant no harm. But the woman drew closer and soon realised they were there. At the sight of two conservators in their red robes, her demeanour turned predatory.
Abandoning her attempt to undress, Esther’s hand moved towards the hilt of her dagger while she assessed the woman the same way she did her prey. The wind was behind her, carrying the scent of sweet soap and flowery perfume as if she’d come straight from the bathhouse. At least she wouldn’t be a thief, since personal hygiene and petty theft didn’t go hand in hand in Koryn City. Esther almost let herself relax until she noticed the woman’s fiery red hair.
Holy fucking hellfire, Esther thought. It was Edyta.
“New girl, go inside,” she hissed.
“Get inside, Kessi!” Esther ordered, using her booming huntsman’s voice that left no room for argument. Her tone of voice worked, and the new girl scurried back inside, leaving Esther to face Edyta alone.
Esther froze in fear. Her life was over. There was no time to run or hide, no time to think of an excuse for her location or habit. Her stomach contorted painfully, and the pressure behind her eyes pulsed so rapidly it made her dizzy. All she could do was watch in horror as Edyta approached.
“Well, well, well,” she gasped, a look of shock plastered on her face. “Isn’t this... something?”
Esther almost burst into tears and her stomach cramped painfully. Never in her entire life had another huntsman recognised her while she was dressed as a conservator. She’d walked past them in the street many times, but she’d always had her hood and face cloth to hide her identity. Even Esvian didn’t recognise her when he saw her in uniform.
She didn’t know what was about to happen, but she knew it had the potential to be catastrophic.
Edyta’s eyes were afire with suspicion. She took her time to inventory Esther’s clothing. “I am shocked to see you here, little mouse. And dressed in death’s clothing no less.” The words dropped from her tongue like acid.
“Careful, Edyta. Even mice bite when cornered, and this one has sharp teeth.”
The edge of Edyta’s mouth twitched. “My dear, that isn’t the correct attitude to have in this situation,” she said, cutting straight through Esther’s forced confidence. “What would the others think if they learned a conservator had infiltrated their ranks?” When she shuffled forwards without a trace of fear in her eyes, Esther knew it was over. If she was uncertain, Esther could have used the dread of the blood force to threaten her into silence.
All her hostility melted away, leaving behind a terrified, vulnerable little girl. “Edyta, please, I beg you: tell no one!”
Edyta licked her lips, unable to stop looking at Esther’s habit. When her eyes reached Esther’s hand, which rested on the hilt of her knife, her stupefied expression disappeared. She straightened with resolve and smiled softly. Esther didn’t miss how it didn’t touch her eyes.
“Of course. Friends always keep each other’s secrets, after all.” Slowly, Edyta leaned forwards and kissed Esther’s cheek with cold lips. “I’ll see you later, for Yarvier’s announcement. I’ve heard it’s one to die for.”
Edyta walked away, and even though the exchange was over in seconds, it had been enough to fry Esther’s nerves. She finished undressing in stunned silence and stumbled down the road, empty-headed and wondering how things could get any worse.
Her sight prickled in warning. Tracking Mavias and the felklein had used up almost all of her reserves. But what remained was strong enough to warn her she was being watched.
A woman emerged from the shadow of an alley and fell into step beside her. Even though she walked in broad daylight, the darkness stuck to her like a shroud. She was in her early twenties with a curved nose and dimpled chin. While her cheeks had lost their childhood fullness, the zealous expression on her face was still recognisable.
It was Sassin.
The hairs at the back of Esther’s neck stood on end.
“That was a close call, sister,” she said, perfectly imitating Esther’s stride.
“I’ve done nothing wrong. I’ve not broken the rules,” she whispered.
Sassin stared at Esther with her bottomless, almond-shaped eyes. “Not yet. But you will. And when you do, I’ll be there, waiting to ferry you to the afterlife.”
Esther halted, but when she turned around, Sassin was gone.
What will Yarvier’s announcement contain?